In a flash

Tiny USB drives

More than 50 years ago, back in a day when computers were quite literally the size of the rooms that housed them, the idea of having the world on a string was pure poetry. Today, when a palm-sized Microsoft Windows PC'running Windows XP, no less'is an everyday tool, the case for miniature, portable storage no longer needs to be made.

In the last 10 years, the industry has moved from SyQuest's 44M removable cartridges, to Iomega's shirt-pocket-sized 100M Zip cartridges, to CD-ROMs that hold hundreds of megabytes and even DVD-R disks that hold thousands of megabytes.

While each format has'or had'its place, the newcomer in terms of portable storage technology is the USB flash drive, poised to dominate the market next year, experts say.

In May, the USB Flash Drive Alliance announced that USB flash drives, or UFDs, are expected to become the top removable solid-state storage format next year. Research firms such as Gartner Dataquest, Semico Research and Web-Feet Research back up that claim, the trade group said. Between 67 million and 120 million USB flash drives are expected to ship next year, worldwide.

'According to our latest research, we forecast that the USB flash drive will lead all removable solid-state storage formats in terms of revenue, units and megabyte shipments for calendar year 2005,' Joseph Unsworth, a senior analyst for Gartner Dataquest of San Jose, Calif., said in a statement.

'The USB Flash Drive Alliance has made significant progress towards its goal to establish the USB flash drive category and educate consumers about these easy-to-use devices,' said Steffen Hellmold, president of the alliance.

That might sound like predictable hype from a trade group but it is buttressed by several factors. Costs are plummeting for USB flash drive devices, with a 512M device available in some places for less than $100. Manufacturers and their sources anticipate significant price drops over the coming year, said Brandon Emerson, a product marketing specialist at Crucial Technology in Meridian, Idaho.

The convenience of the UFDs is also winning over customers: It plugs in and out of a familiar and accessible computer port, can work across platforms and can be worn on a lanyard around one's neck, becoming the new symbol of 'geek chic.' Given that this chic includes storage for one's crucial information, having 'the world on a string' suddenly seems more than a song title.

Pushing the competition aside

While Emerson concedes that 'CD technology isn't going to go away,' he said USB flash drives 'will replace floppies and Zip [drives] and some of those other technologies.'

It will even be possible, if not standard, to boot computers from USB flash drives. In May, Microsoft Corp. announced at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC, that it plans to introduce new software and tools that take full advantage of the multiple functions and features USB flash drives offer.

A demo during Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin's WinHEC talk featured a user transferring and configuring a wireless network on several PCs using a UFD. In other settings, said Dan Lister, a government/enterprise sales manager with Crucial Technology, a UFD can contain a user's network settings, which combine with a PC to replicate the user's normal desktop. That was once thought the sole province of a Unix-based network with smart cards; now, the smart UFD can reside on a key chain.

Along with log-in and security uses'biometric identification is becoming part of some UFD designs'the solid-state drives are finding specialized uses in DOD installations, said Lister, who is also a member of the Idaho National Guard.

'I happen to be a member of an attack helicopter battalion, and we have an engagement-support facility here,' he said. 'The mechanics, avionics technicians and maintenance supervisors can keep an entire aircraft's history in a folder on one of these flash drives. It really makes it convenient. The mobility, the size of these things, are really good fits.'

Lister also said the drives are, essentially, rugged little items in and of themselves. 'The military likes it as it is now; it's fairly ruggedized for use in the field,' he said, although one manufacturer advertises a UFD in a titanium case.

For the future, Crucial's Emerson forecasts a size breakthrough past the current 2G barrier toward the end of next year. Today's drives will get more encryption software and programs, which will let the drives do more than stash data files. One supplier is planning software to enable the user log-in approach mentioned above.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Rockville, Md. E-mail him at [email protected].


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